By Cat Zavis
Some people have asked me what is a defining moment in your life that made you ‘you.’ And I always tell the following story. When I was 12 years old I was sitting in my living with my mom, dad, and older sister. We were watching the television show Roots. Whenever I tell this story, including now, I have a flashback to our living room. I can picture exactly where I am sitting, on the floor in front of the coffee table with my eyes glued to the screen. My parents and sister are sitting on our multi-colored velvet couches with white frames. For those of you who don’t know what Roots is or have never seen it (and if you don’t, I implore you to see it – there’s a modern version), it is the story of slavery as told through one family’s experience, namely that of its author, Alex Haley. (Roots was shown on national television for many days in a row during prime time, in the day when there were only a few channels from which to choose, and people throughout the country, like me, were glued to their television screens.) One of the lead characters, Kunta Kente, is ripped from his mother’s arms as a young child and put on a truck to be sold as a slave to a new master. They are both screaming and crying. I collapsed in a ball on the floor screaming and crying, my 12 year old being was completely unable to fathom something so completely horrific and inhumane. I have no idea how long I cried and screamed, but I know my parents were unable to console me. And I remember in that moment that I made a vow, I would spend my life working to help ensure things like this never happen again. This single scene of the entire episode is forever implanted in my memory; it haunts me and it motivates me. It is why I have worked my entire life for justice.
Flash forward to May 25, 2018. Children as young as 53 weeks (yes, you read that right) are being ripped from their parents arms when they try to enter this country seeking safety. I am immediately back in my childhood living room watching Kunta Kente yet again being ripped from his mother’s arms. I enter my shower on Shabbat evening, in preparation for entering a sacred time in which I re-insoul myself and give myself the time to envision the world that can be, and as the warm water washes over my body like a mikvah(a cleansing bath), I begin to shake and sob. Once again I cannot actually fathom how any person can possibly rip a child from a parent’s arms. What is it that allows us to dehumanize other people so deeply and so profoundly that even a child’s screams of agony do not breakthrough the armor in which we have wrapped ourselves? What fear lurks within that impedes our ability to see the harm of our ways? And how does engaging in this behavior dehumanize the person doing the bidding of the state?
I can certainly label this policy as racist, which it most definitely is, and inhumane, which it obviously is, but I am more interested in finding a way to understand the fear and stories people have told themselves to convince themselves that such a policy is not inhumane but necessary because I believe that this latter approach is what is more likely to create the sea change we need, not only in this horrific policy, but also in our country. Because really, why aren’t we all at immigration centers, at the borders, at the Whitehouse, etc. protesting this cruel policy? [For those of you who want to take action, there are rallies scheduled for Thursday, June 14th around the country. To learn more, click here – https://actionnetwork.org/forms/families-belong-together]
When I saw Kunta Kente being ripped from his mother’s arms, I imagined myself stepping in to prevent it. This is one of the things I love most about my younger, fearless, idealist self. I actually thought I would have intervened, that I would not have let that happen, and that I could have stopped it. And yet, exactly how to intervene effectively now and how to avoid getting burned out is not so easy to figure out. What is happening in our country right now is disheartening, to say the least. So many of us are completely horrified at the direction our country is headed and yet unlike during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights era, we are not filling our streets, we are not blocking ICE offices or vans, we are not laying our bodies on the line – at least not in numbers large enough to rouse the attention of the press or politicians or to grind the machinery of injustice to a halt. I am not criticizing us, I am simply reflecting upon the fact that the vast array of outrages throughout the country make it exceedingly difficult to know how or where to intervene in an effective way. There are so many simultaneous threats and attacks happening to the environment, immigrants, women, LBGTQ people, Muslims, and Jews (did I miss anyone or anything?) and so many of us are working to ward off attacks on one or more of these issues, yet we still seem unable to put a dent in the ongoing assaults and attacks on human life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (not to the mention the environment).
In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times on May 27th, Katherine Stewart wrote an article “A Christian Nationalist Blitz” in which she explains the tactics of Christian nationalists for advancing their legislative goals in state capitols across the country, a tactic they call “Project Blitz.” The idea is to flood state legislatures with bills designed to overwhelm the Left. “It’s kind of like whack-a-mole for the other side; it’ll drive ‘em crazy that they’ll have to divide their resources in opposing this.” This has been the successful tactic of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Religious Right, and the capitalist moguls (the Koch brothers) for decades – they create model legislation on numerous issues and then ALEC-backed legislators introduce the legislation in statehouses throughout the country. We, on the Left, have no comprehensive strategy to respond to this rather brilliant approach. According to the NYT article, more than 70 bills are before state legislatures either based on the templates of or have similar objectives to those created by Project Blitz. According to Stewart, their aim is gain political power to be able to not only promote their biblical worldview but to actually have it be the worldview that controls and mediates all aspects of politics, culture, and society.
The unified response of organizations and activists reaching out to one another from their different silos to respond to this most recent outrage, just as they did in response to the Muslim ban, the neo-Nazi marches in Charleston, the threat to Obamacare, and the protests in support of #BlackLivesMatter, is a beautiful and powerful. Reaching across our silos, learning from each other about what is most needed and how to respond, and collaborating and supporting one another when urgent issues emerge that need our immediate attention is critical.
And, in addition to these efforts and acts of solidarity, we need to take it a step further by unifying our message and articulating what it is we are for rather than simply talking about what we are against. We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives believe we have a simple message that can help us unify our message and we call it a New Bottom Line. Bishop Michael Curry most recently articulated this vision before the entire world at the wedding of Prince Harry and Princess Meghan when he spoke so eloquently and persuasively for a world based on love. He asked us to imagine what every facet of our society and the world would look like and could be if love was the guiding principle by which we made daily decisions not only in our personal lives, but also in our public lives. Love is a powerful force that can transform our world.
Just like Bishop Curry, we ask: what would it mean to have an economic system, an education system, a legal system, a political system, and an entire world based on love, kindness, generosity, justice, and peace? What might that world look like?The New Bottom Line is a way of ensuring that love actually becomes one of the determining factors we use when assessing the value of the work we do, the products we produce, the legislation we propose, the education and legal systems we create, and the lives we live. Currently in our society (and in most societies throughout the world) we determine the ‘success’ of our economic, political, and social systems based on whether they maximize money, profit, and power. You often hear people talk about the “bottom line.” A company makes decisions about what to produce, whether to hire or fire people, where and how to make their products or house their industries, and whether to move their factories overseas or to a new city based on the “bottom line,” namely how much money will it make their shareholders and/or owners. What is not asked is, what are the impacts of these decisions on our environment, on the well-being of our workers or people in the communities in which we operate our business or dispose of our waste. These questions are deemed unnecessary because they are not related to the bottom line – they are simply not part of the equation. The New Bottom Line puts these questions, questions of the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, front and center.
A New Bottom Line is one that judges the success of every sector, system, and institution of our society (our economy, government, schools, health care system, legal system, etc.) based not on the old bottom line of whether they maximize money, profit and power, but instead by the extent to which they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, empathy and compassion, social, economic and environmental justice, peace and nonviolence, and protection of the life support system of our planet, as well as encourage us to transcend a narrow utilitarian approach to nature and other human beings and enhance our capacity to respond with awe and wonder to the universe and to see the sacred in others and in all sentient beings.
I am suggesting that we need all social change organizations, movements, and activists to articulate this positive vision of the world we want as part of their platforms, on their websites, in their messaging, at protests, in press releases, and in speeches. Why? For a few different reasons. First, we will need to continue to be fight against far more attacks on our freedom, security, liberty, humanity, and environment than we can possibly respond to effectively. We know this is so because the vast majority of statehouses and governors’ offices, as well as all three branches of the federal government are currently run by people who are more closely aligned with the Christian nationalists than their actual popularity in our country as a whole. In other words, the Christian Right is winning and has been for a long time. As the NYT article points out, they have a long-term strategy to keep us distracted from being able to put forth a vision of the world we want and in the process, forcing us further and further into our silos and dividing our resources. We need to articulate “a dream” to counter their nightmare.
Second, we need to articulate our visionary and loving worldview in response to their biblical worldview. Resistance is not a worldview, it is a reaction. That is not to say that social change organizations do not have a worldview that underlies their motivations and work, they most certainly do. It is just that they do not articulate it. In a study of progressive grassroots religious activists in the 1990s, Stephen Hart summarized this dichotomy. “Progressives often fail to articulate, and sometimes even try to hide, the ethical values that ground their proposals. The right, meanwhile, engaging in discourse that is generally more passionate and transcendent, has seized the discursive high ground.” He elaborated this point by explaining that these activists act as if the following rules exist:
Don’t talk about anything other than the practical steps of achieving the immediate goals the organization is trying for! Don’t bring up any basic values (religious or political) that underlie your commitment to the organization! Don’t ask anyone to articulate their reasons for participating in the group! Don’t talk in terms that engage people’s passion! Discuss issues in purely instrumental terms whenever possible!
This reluctance, even strong resistance, to bringing one’s faith or spirituality into politics ensures that those who identify with spiritual and religious traditions will continue to be vulnerable to manipulations of those beliefs by the Right. We need to find a way to counter this tendency on the Left and the New Bottom Line is one such way because it draws on universal values that are accessible whether one is spiritual, religious, or atheist. All it requires is that you want a world based on love, kindness, and justice. The hard part is, however, is that it demands that we speak to these values openly, frequently, and powerfully.
Third, articulating a positive vision of a world based on love and justice will help motivate the masses we need to create a sea change. We live in a society that is morally bankrupt and there are enough moral outrages to arouse our rage and sense of injustice on a daily basis. We receive more calls for us to sign petitions, show up for protests, call on behalf of candidates, etc. than we can possibly respond to in any week, let alone day. And each one of these can feel so hopeless and overwhelmed such that people become discouraged and eventually stop participating or responding to the endless requests. We often feel that all these efforts are completely useless, particularly as things continue to exacerbate around us. So we need a way to respond to and talk about the fundamental distortions of our society and the New Bottom Line offers that possibility in the following way.
Our society is morally bankrupt because we seem to have forgotten the foundation of any society and humanity – that of caring about one another and recognizing that our individual well-being is intricately connected to the well-being everyone else and the planet as a whole. The distortion of our society is that we are taught to believe that the only way to ensure one’s own well-being is to prioritize our own self-interest, produce and consume as we desire without care for the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, and step over others on our way to the top. Greed, selfishness, and having more money than one possibly could ever need are glorified. We need to explicitly articulate a different fundamental message – namely that we care about each other and believe love, kindness, and justice are the social fabric of our society. Without this unifying message, I fear that we will be unable to move the masses we need to join our efforts. A vision of where we are going is what keeps people coming back and inspires people to be involved for the long haul. Otherwise, people will be involved when a particular issue either affects them personally or for some particular reason speaks to their heart or sense of injustice. But they are not going to show up again and again and again to fight against the never ending evils of the empire, at least not until their own personal lives are more deeply impacted. If we wait until that time arrives, we are in serious trouble.
Fourth, using the concrete language of the New Bottom Line helps people draw connections between the different areas of focus and silos in which we normally operate and helps us see where we are going.
Agreeing to unifying principles does not require that organizations change their focus or work, but rather highlight a shared commitment to certain values and practices that could build a sense of connection and solidarity amongst organizations working for social transformation. This would not only help people working in separate silos sometimes inhabited by social change movements to see their interconnection with all the other social change movements, but would also give those not yet part of our movements a sense of our positive vision for which what we stand (rather than what we are against). To see our proposed unifying principles and sign on to them, go to: https://spiritualprogressives.org/philosophy/unifying-principles/. It would be a powerful message if social change organizations locally and nationally signed-on in support of these fundamental principles. If you are able to support that effort, please share these with them.
If you are interested in learning more about these ideas and how you can join our efforts to share these and other visionary proposals please check out our training for Spiritual Activists at https://spiritualprogressives.org/get-involved/spiritual-activism-training/.
 Stephen Hart, Cultural Dilemmas of Progressive Politics: Styles of Engagement among Grassroots Activists(Chicago: University Chicago Press, 2001), 20.
 Hart, 15.